Lady Gaga has been a godsend to drag queens the world over with her Space Age outfits, giant sunglasses, and skyscraper heels. But none of her many impersonators have received nearly as much attention as "Timmy," the amateur singer in a Mickey Mouse t-shirt and boxer shorts belting out "Bad Romance" into a giant banana.
Timmy's not alone. The newest internet phenomenon can be seen all over YouTube: toddlers in front of the camera performing a gender-bending song and dance for an audience of millions. The result has been instant fame for the unwitting tots – the "Bad Romance" video has been viewed nearly 2 million times, received the Perez Hilton stamp of approval, and the child has been friended online by thousands of people.
But it's also attracted the internet's unique brand of drive-by bigotry, with anonymous commenters hurling slurs about the kids' perceived sexuality, raising difficult questions for socially progressive parents who would ordinarily encourage the idea of a child playing around with unconventional gender roles.
Ten years ago, it wouldn't have been possible for a little boy to camp it up for all of America to see. Today, these young boys, with their flamboyant performance antics, become minor celebrities, with all the pluses and minuses associated with such status.
Take the adorable little boy writhing on the floor as he lip syncs Beyonce's "Irreplaceable." "I can have another you in a minute, Matter of fact he'll be here in a minute, baby," he mouths to no one in particular before diving into a full split. Some people in the feedback section have defended him against the haters: "he's just a kid... doesn't know what is masculine or feminine... it's a pitty [ sic] that so many people judge him for that..."
Or join the 12 million people who've watched the baby boy in his diaper, bouncing up and down as he watches the former Destiny's Child frontwoman, completely mesmerized, while his father laughs in the background.
And certainly you caught the video of the kid in the backseat of a car who attempts to do the "Single Ladies" dance with two older girls to his left, only to be told by a man (presumably his father), "Esai, you're not a single lady." The toddler bursts into tears as the man in the front begins apologizing profusely.
For all the homophobic jeering that these videos attract, these performances have struck a chord with generations of guys who were labeled as sissies or worse when they were little kids themselves. For men who spent their childhoods playing dressup to Madonna, Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand, and Judy Garland, the videos can be normalizing—even nostalgic. The freedom afforded these kids to act out their diva fantasies could be seen as a poignant commentary on how far society has come.
Kevin Hertzog, a prop stylist in New York, is a fan of the trend. "I think it's completely great," he says. "When I was five, I walked into my mother's closet, put on her heels and a dress, and came downstairs. My parents saw me and I got screamed at. They forced me to go back and put my father's clothes on, and there's this picture of me crying because my mother took a Polaroid. She thought it was so cute, and I was in tears. The Gaga video is the antithesis of that. The kid's mother is the camera operator."
Likewise, Michael Musto, the gossip columnist at the Village Voice, says he never would have dreamed of uploading a video of himself impersonating Diana Ross and The Supremes. "I couldn't get enough of imitating Diana in the mirror, but it was just for me and my mirror and my imaginary audience," he says. "I would never have shown it to my parents."
Musto even thinks the video of the father apologizing to his son for telling him he's not a single lady is a hopeful sign. "That probably would not have happened in the past," he says. "The kid would have been given a G.I. Joe doll and sent off to military school. It's great these kids are able to be themselves and flaunt it."
But flaunt what, exactly?
Already, some adult gay men are extrapolating fairly big things from the videos. "I remember doing the exact same thing in the privacy of my bedroom in Scottsdale, Arizona to Cher and Olivia Newton John songs!" says the drag queen known as Jackie Beat. "Now the little [kids] can put it up on YouTube and make the whole world realize that being gay is not a choice and something that, in most cases, is apparent from day one."
The freedom afforded these kids to act out their diva fantasies could be seen as a poignant commentary on how far society has come.
For Ritch Savin Williams, a professor of child psychology at Cornell University, this isn't much of a revelation. "I've seen pictures of kids barely able to walk putting high heels on and towels around their heads so that it looks like they have long hair. Some of these kids do this stuff extraordinarily early. What's changed is the distribution for all this stuff."
But to Hertzog, the importance of these videos has less to do with questions of sexuality than it does with increasing the number of possibilities available to children regarding what kinds of people they want to become.
"It doesn't matter if the kids are gay," he says. "Some of them probably won't be. They're mimicking what's on television. But if you don't give them the space to do that, then how will they become the people they truly are?"
Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. Previously, he was a features writer at WWD and W Magazine. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.